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How to Teach Middle Sounds to Early Readers

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

Short vowels and their sounds can be a challenging concept for children to get to grips with. This is because short vowels are harder to feel in the mouth compared to consonant sounds making it trickier for children to hear them. When trying to spell CVC words, do your children get the beginning and end sound no problem but miss out the middle sound? For example, when attempting to spell the word “cat” you are more likely to see “ct”. Another issue I have seen is children mixing up their short vowel sounds. Often children muddle up “a” and “u” with each other and “e” and “i”.

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In this post, I am going to explain what medial sounds are as well as how to know if your children are ready to learn short vowel sounds. I am going to discuss how to introduce short vowels and outline a suggested order to teaching them. I am also going to share some short vowel activity ideas and resources including my Short Vowel Activity Pack which explores missing middle sounds.

Watch the video below for a closer look at this my Missing Middle Sounds Activity.

What is a Medial (or Middle) Sound?

A medial or middle sound is the sound found in the middle of a word. It can be a short vowel sound such as a, e, i, o, or u, or it can be a long vowel sound such as ai, ee, igh, etc. When learning to read and write children often find the middle sounds of words trickier to hear when compared to beginning and end sounds. Today, we’re going to focus on short vowel middle sounds in CVC words.

How do you know if your learners are ready to learn vowel sounds?

You will know your learners are ready for vowel sounds when they can consistently hear beginning and end sounds in words. Another sign that your children are ready for vowel sounds is if they attempt to include a middle sound when spelling CVC words. Most of the time they might use the wrong vowel but the fact they know something should be there shows they are ready to learn more! If you would like to learn more about reading readiness you can check out my blog post Ready to Read? How to Know When your Kids are Ready to Read?

Why do you teach short vowels before long vowels?

So you may be wondering, which vowels to teach first? It is a good idea to teach short vowel sounds before long vowel sounds as often children find short vowels trickier to remember. They can also find them challenging to differentiate between. Another reason we focus on short vowel sounds first is they are used in A LOT of words, especially CVC words which younger learners usually focus on first when learning to read and write. Once children have learned what sound each short vowel makes this will quickly impact their reading ability and decoding of words.

What order do you teach short vowels?

Short vowel sounds should be ideally taught in a slightly different order than you may think! You should aim to teach short vowels in the following order – a, i, o, u, then e. By teaching short vowel sounds in this order you are separating the teaching of the vowel sounds that children often get muddled up. As learners often get “a” mixed up with “u” and “e” mixed up with “I”, this way of teaching short vowel sounds should hopefully reduce the likelihood of children getting these sounds confused with each other. You should also aim to teach “a” first as this short vowel sound is used in a lot of words and if children have learned other sounds such as s, t, p, etc they can easily start to read, build and write words.

How to introduce a short vowel sound?

Although this post is mainly looking at short vowels as middle sounds, an effective way to introduce short vowels is to use words beginning with that vowel sound. The reason we do this is to allow learners to hear the short vowel sound more easily in their mouth. By using words beginning with short vowels, you can really show the shape of your mouth while making this sound.

Using actions or visual clues for each short vowel is another idea to consider when introducing these sounds. This will give your learners a little prompt when trying to remember what sound each vowel makes. You can always take away the visual prompts as your learners get more confident with their short vowel sounds.

When introducing short vowels focus on one vowel at a time. This will help reduce the chances of children getting their short vowels muddled up. Do not feel like you need to move onto the next vowel until your learners are secure with it. Try and provide lots of varied opportunities to explore short vowel sounds through various activities such as written methods, hands-on activities, listening activities, reading activities, etc. Try and provide opportunities for both decoding and encoding activities.

How to continue teaching middle sounds or short vowels?

Once your learners have gained a little confidence with each individual short vowel sound you can extend their learning by exploring CVC word families using that sound. For example, if your children are confident with the sound “a” they are ready to begin to learn about word families such as “at”, “ap”, “am” etc and you can begin to explore CVC words using these patterns. Similar to introducing the individual short vowel sounds, focus on one word family at a time. My FREE CVC Word Family Poster Pack includes 24 different CVC word families for your learners to explore.

When looking at each CVC word family spend time pointing out the rhyming patterns. Explain to your learners, if they can read and spell the word “cat” then they can easily read, and spell words like “mat” and “sat” etc. Word family spelling patterns and sounds are very predictable which should hopefully make it easier for children to learn how to read and spell these words.

Once your learners have covered a few CVC word families you could mix them up for a bit of a challenge. Then, once your children are comfortable with CVC words using short vowels, they are ready to move on to CVCC words with short vowels followed by CCVC words using short vowels then finally CCVCC words with a short vowel middle sound.

When introducing short vowel sounds there are so many fun and engaging ways to do this. I have explained 5 different activities below that I have found particularly effective when teaching short vowels to my class.

Listen for the vowel

This activity is great for developing children’s encoding skills using short vowels and is also extremely easy to set up. I simply say a CVC word and ask my children to show me the middle sound they can hear. You can change up how you want your learners to show you the middle sound. They can write it on a mini whiteboard, show a letter card or fan or even show you the action they have learned that corresponds to that short vowel. My Middle Sounds activity reinforces this skill by asking children to look at the picture and write the correct middle sound. I have even included a useful vowel slider tool so children can check which short vowel fits by sliding the tool up and down through the space on the worksheet.


This fun activity is a great way to determine if your learners really have learned what each short vowel sounds like. For this activity, I would lay out a selection of cards with different short vowel sounds on them. You can decide if you want to mix in consonants or focus completely on short vowels. My learners each have a plastic fly swatter for this activity. I would then say a short vowel sound then ask my learners to splat the correct sound. To make this activity more challenging, I would then say a CVC word and ask my children to splat the short vowel they can hear in that word.

Word/Picture Sorting

For this activity give your children a selection of picture cards that represent CVC words using different short vowels. You could then ask your children to sort these picture cards into the correct short vowel group. So, all the words that have “a” in the middle would go together, all the words with “e” in the middle would be grouped together, and so on.

When learning CVC word families, a fun activity would be to look at a CVC word such as “mat” then ask your learners to change the first letter to a different consonant. Your children would read the new word and decide if this was a real word or a nonsense word. You could then ask your learner to think of as many different words within that same word family as they can. My CVC Words Activity pack is a great way for children to explore each CVC word family individually.


To play this game, place a selection of cards with different short vowel sounds face down on a flat surface. You would also write the word “Bang!” on a few cards and place those face down too. Children then take it in turns to turn over one card at a time. If they say the correct short vowel, they get to keep the card. If they do not, they put it back and the next player has their turn. If one of your children picks up a “Bang!” card they must return all their cards they have earned! To make this activity more challenging you could use cards with pictures that represent CVC words and when your children pick up a card, they have to say the correct middle sound.

Overall, although teaching middle sounds can be quite tricky, there are so many engaging ways to support your children! Keeping in mind to teach only one short vowel or word family at a time will ensure your learners will not get confused. Remember to check out my 5 activity ideas for teaching middle sounds and short vowels as well as my FREE CVC Word Family Poster Pack!

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